“You did this to yourself”: Growing up as an immigrant, the college process and mental health


Iris Libson

People like me, immigrants, are risks. Am I a worthy investment? Do I deserve their teaching and money in the form of aid? This all must play into their decision to accept or deny me.

Urva Jha, Managing Editor

I’m sitting at my desk doing homework, my eyes sore. The clock strikes midnight and I’m doing this after a full day of school—I’m tired, exhausted, it’s clear that the workload and fatigue are catching up with me, and this is a frequent occurrence. After ranting to a friend, they soon ask the inevitable question: “Why do you do this to yourself?” I make some self-deprecating joke, avoiding a straight answer. The real reason is something I never say; it’s too complex, or they wouldn’t understand. The real reason is immigration.

The way the United States has handled immigration often brings up an extensive, opinionated debate. What any debate fails to address, however, is immigration’s implications on the education system. The legal immigration process is long and extensive. First, you must obtain a visa in order to stay in the United States temporarily. If you want to stay permanently, apply for a green card, more commonly referred to as earning “permanent residential status,” then apply for citizenship five years later. Simple enough, right?

My family immigrated to the United States in May 2007, and I’ve lived in the metro for almost my whole life. We applied for a green card soon after we moved, realizing that our family was not leaving the United States any time soon. Over a decade later, we still haven’t received it, which has become a major stressor when it comes to college.

Education must be emphasized to promote future success. It acts as an integral value in so many families, and mine was no exception. I enrolled in Edina Public Schools at the age of four through the process of early admissions. My immigrant parents always strived for me to be the best that I could, even teaching me advanced classes at home alongside what I was learning at school. Finishing random math worksheets my parents found online was always the highlight of my summer. My parents’ goal of teaching the value of education to me at a young age was evident.

I started young scholars in second grade, advanced math in third, and advanced reading in fourth, which I continued throughout elementary school. I was unsure why my parents kept encouraging me to go ahead and be better. Even as an eight-year-old, I was putting in more effort to basic classes like math and reading, staying ahead of my nine-year-old classmates, an age gap that felt like an eternity at the time. This carried into middle school, where I’d pick classes to prove my level of academic rigor whenever possible. My parents soon let me know that academics, while important, weren’t enough (enough for what? At the time I wasn’t sure). I’d have to pick a sport and stick with it if I wanted to get into a competitive college, and I followed their advice.

I started showing interest in college at the end of elementary. The future was always fascinating to me and I knew I could have a “good” life if I went to a “good” college. What “good” meant was something I was blissfully unaware of.

When high school registration began for freshman year, it wasn’t a shocker that I chose to take advanced classes. What did come as a shock (especially to my friends, who proceeded to tell me that I’m insane), was my choice to do AP Statistics while simultaneously enrolled in Calculus I. This decision stemmed from my desire to go to a prestigious college, as well as the academic concern of my parents beginning to reflect in my decisions.

The COVID-19 pandemic was brutal, mentally and emotionally. The classes I took required an understanding of the material and ambition—something that I lost over quarantine. With the lack of motivation and stress from the burden of classes piling up, I was drowning. At the time, I didn’t fully understand why I took those classes, but I did it anyway, thinking I could manage it.

So with all of those negative experiences, all of which were due to my rigor-encouraging environment, you’d think I’d take easier classes in sophomore year, right? Wrong.

I had a close friend during my freshman year that was going through the college application process, through which I learned a couple of things about how immigration plays into college admissions. What I learned wasn’t much, but it was daunting. Without a green card, I’d be applying as an international student to colleges, despite living in Minnesota legally for almost my entire life. I’d be paying a significantly higher price to go to college than my Edina peers. With the exception of a few prestigious schools, very few colleges would offer me financial aid, and unless an immigrant is on a specific visa, they do not qualify for federal student aid, to which I am no exception. Based on this, I drew a conclusion that colleges don’t see me as a very desirable person. People like me, immigrants, are risks. Am I a worthy investment? Do I deserve their teaching and money in the form of aid? This all must play into their decision to accept or deny me.

Being aware of this and the infamous legacy process (the likelihood of acceptance to a college increasing based on family members that attended said college), I freaked out and decided, “You know what? Let’s just do whatever I can to make myself look good to colleges.”

My schedule now is, to put it simply, packed. On an average school night, I get an average of 4-5 hours of sleep. I attempt and fail to keep my Saturdays empty for the sake of my wellbeing, and my Sundays are always full of homework. My anxiety levels are at an all-time high and life is frankly difficult. I am a wreck, emotionally and mentally, but my grades are “good” and I’m passing by. As I think of the life I wanted as a middle schooler, a “good” life, my thoughts spiral. 

Even with so much time being spent on academics and stressing out about college, I still have no idea what I want out of my life. I realize that as an immigrant, I’m not allowed to have dreams. I don’t have the luxury of dreaming of being a writer on my favorite TV show. I have no safety net. Making the most out of high school, going to a prestigious college, and getting a job in engineering immediately afterwards is the best I can ever hope for, realistically. I realized that I’m spending so much time on classes that will help me live a life that, though it will allow me to survive, will never let me thrive, and that I’ll never have the luxury of being allowed to pursue my hypothetical dreams.

Evidently, immigration status isn’t the only thing holding students back. Many first-generation college students and low-income students face similar struggles in terms of opportunities. This is just what I have experienced as an immigrant: not knowing what I was working for and feeling disappointed with the results.

So when I hear my classmates go out and openly defend the school system and the workload it demands, it’s personal. When someone decides to say, “It’s your fault you chose to take the classes you did,” it’s invalid because I didn’t choose it. The environment that immigration has formed around me put me in a position where I had to take those classes. Defending the excessively competitive school system needs to stop; there’s no way of knowing what another student is going through. The workload doesn’t accurately reflect intelligence, and the point of school is to learn, not to stress people out. It’s likely that someone with a packed schedule didn’t choose their classes, themself. The competitiveness and stress school brings in the modern era is unacceptable and forces some groups of people to keep up with the rigor to their breaking point, for the sake of their future.

 Looking ahead to next year, am I planning on taking three AP classes along with Calculus 3 and a multitude of extracurriculars? Yes. Will I regret it? Probably. Will I change my decision? No, I don’t have a choice. Unnecessary competition needs to be discussed, along with the immigration process. Problem one? Immigrant or not, you never actually learned any of this in school.